Lesser magistrate

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Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, who protected Martin Luther, was a "lesser magistrate" under Emperor Charles V.

The doctrine of the lesser magistrate is a concept in Protestant thought. A lesser magistrate is a ruler such as a prince who is under a greater ruler such as an emperor. According to many figures of the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, the lesser magistrate has the authority to rebel against the tyranny of a supreme ruler.

The doctrine of the lesser magistrate finds its origin in John Calvin, who wrote that whereas private Christians must submit to the ruling authorities, there are "popular magistrates" who have "been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings". When these magistrates "connive at kings when they tyrannise and insult over the humbler of the people" they "fraudulently betray the liberty of the people" when God has appointed them guardians of that liberty.[1]

The lesser magistrate is prominent in the Lutheran Magdeburg Confession of 1550, which argued that the "subordinate powers" in a state, faced with the situation where the "supreme power" is working to destroy true religion, may go further than non-cooperation with the supreme power and assist the faithful to resist.[2]

The doctrine of the lesser magistrate became important for the justification of the Dutch Revolt. According to Johannes Althusius in 1603 work, Politica, resistance to a supreme magistrate by lesser magistrates is justified in the case of tyranny. Althusius argued that the provincial authorities of the United Provinces were in this situation.[3]

Gary M. Simpson suggests that after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572 there was a "populist expansion" of the doctrine in which "the ruled would no longer be merely the subject of the ruler; they would become citizens."[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.xx.31.
  2. ^ Wernham, R. B. (1968). Counter-Reformation and Price Revolution, 1559-1610. Cambridge University Press. p. 98. 
  3. ^ R. von Friedeburg, "Althusius," in Dictionary of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Dutch Philosophers, ed. W. van Bunge (Bristol, 2003), 11–18.
  4. ^ Gary M. Simpson, "Toward a Lutheran "Delight in the Law of the Lord": Church and State in the Context of Civil Society," in Church & State: Lutheran Perspectives, p. 43.